Posted On: December 1, 2023
As we will hear on the radio and in the department stores, it is now the most wonderful time of the year. Here in Idaho, it can get cold! We double check that the winter coats and shoes that keep our feet dry are at the ready and that our car ice scrapers and snow brushes are handy. The snow and cold takes some preparation, but there seems to be a spark of some kind…something that makes this time of year feel warmer for the heart even though it may be chilly outside. That spark is a light of hope and peace. This is a common holiday season experience, but if you were to ask someone wearing a hat that says “Vietnam Veteran” you may learn of a different kind of Christmas.
During the Vietnam War, many men and women celebrated Christmas in the unfamiliar tropical jungle. For some, it was perhaps the first time they had been away from home for the holidays, or at all. Instead of winter coats they had flak jackets and heavy metal helmets. Instead of warm winter boots they wore combat boots and tried to avoid stepping on booby traps and punji sticks in the jungle. There was no ice on the ground to worry about, so instead of an ice scraper they made sure their rifle was within reach. It was war and it was cold, but a very different kind of cold.
Throughout the Warhawk Air Museum, there are hundreds of personal stories recorded in books and binders and each one takes our visitors to the place and time of that veteran’s time in service. Some of the stories featured here in the museum give insight as to what Christmas was like during the Vietnam War.
Colonel Curtis “Curt” Bowers
In the second hangar of the museum, to the right, you will see a cabinet display featuring Colonel Curt Bowers. Below are photos of how Christmas was celebrated in Vietnam in 1964.
On February 7, 1966, Colonel Curt Bowers helped save his fellow soldiers during a firefight with North Vietnamese troops amidst intense automatic weapons firing at him and his fellow soldiers. Two soldiers were killed in the battle. Colonel Curt Bowers attended the dead and wounded in the field and brought them back to a safe area to be medically evacuated. He then set up a triage and a landing zone, all while being exposed to enemy fire. Colonel Curtis “Curt” Bowers was a Chaplain serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. He did not stop until all the casualties were evacuated. He saved 11 soldiers. You can read more about Chaplain Bowers here or come by the Warhawk and take a look!
Vietnam Christmas vignettes
The holidays for the American G.I.’s overseas during the Vietnam War were different for everyone. To learn more about what Christmas was like during this time, why not ask some Vietnam veterans themselves?
By December 25, 1967, George Alton had only been in Vietnam for two weeks. He was in Cu Chi, just northwest of Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam). He was 19 years old when he arrived and by Christmas Day, two weeks later, he was 20. George remembers attending a church service on Christmas morning and then he and his fellow G.I.’s had a nice turkey dinner in the mess hall. They reminisced about home and talked amongst themselves about what their families were probably doing at that moment. George thought about what his parents and sister were possibly doing as they prepared for the holiday. He later learned from two fellow soldiers that a pool had been built nearby, so they went swimming on Christmas Day. This must have been new for George as he was from the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., and it usually rained and rained during Christmastime!
After their swim, as they were drying off, they heard explosions that were not far away. And then they were right on top of them as they got shelled. They looked at one another, confused, as there was supposed to be a cease fire on Christmas Day. After the shelling ended, they ended the day with a few drinks. George remembers what his mother sent him as Christmas gifts: a pair of sunglasses that were broken by the time they got to him and half a pint of brandy which was not broken. George was able to be home for the next Christmas, but he shares that Christmas has not been the same for him since 1967. He makes sure to get into the spirit for his family making sure their Christmases are as merry and bright as can be, but still he sees it as just another day. However, that doesn’t stop George from having a merry and bright personality all year round and we get to see him every week here at the museum! Come by and say hello!
Lorraine Diehl served in the Army Nurse Corps from May 1968 – August 1969 and she recalls: “At Easter we colored eggs and gave each patient one. And at Christmas we made paper ornaments which we hung on an artificial tree. Each patient got an ornament. Although these customs were strange to these mostly Buddist [sic] people, they cherished the eggs or the paper trinkets.” Lorraine was serving at the 312th Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai in northern South Vietnam. You can read more about Lorraine here.
For Warhawk volunteer and U.S. Air Force veteran TeeJay McGrath, Christmas 1971 was the time when he received perhaps one of the greatest gifts of all. He was able to come home for Christmas after serving seven months at Da Nang, Vietnam. When he came home, he met his son for the first time. His little boy was just born in October 1971. TeeJay recalls, “He screamed every time he saw me.” However, after his visit home, TeeJay had to return to Da Nang as there was still a job to be done. TeeJay’s son no longer screams when he sees his father and we have a feeling he is very proud of his father.
Paul Carpenter of the U.S. Marine Corps remembers December 1972 being in the 1st Marine Airwing and participating in Operation Linebacker II. He recalls spending Christmas in the hot humidity of Cubi Point in the Philippines and flying in missions to the freezing cold of the area near the Sea of Japan all in the same day. They were stationed in the Philippines but would make frequent trips to places in Vietnam such as Da Nang and would turn around and head back.
The holidays for those who served in Vietnam were different for everyone. Some have come back home and too many have not. During this holiday season, make sure your loved ones know that they are safe and they are home. Don’t forget to thank them.